They made good time on the road, arriving in the next town by late afternoon. Instead of checking in at an inn, Cheung insisted on going straight to his local contact. Ayan parked the wagon outside a short, squat building. The sign above the door read ‘New World Printers’.
As Lee leapt off the back, he heard faint mechanical clanking drift through the air. He wrinkled his nose. There was…something…in the air. A moment later, he detected a faint whiff of hot, freshly-printed paper.
“Mr Lee, Ms Tung, please stay outside to guard the wagon,” Cheung said.
“You don’t need any escorts?” she asked.
“No need. We’re among friends here.”
With a grunt, Ayan grabbed a trunk off the back of the wagon and followed Cheung in. Lee briefly contemplated grabbing his Volition, but that was probably overkill in an urban environment. Besides, if they needed a long gun, Tung could unhook her box from her belt and fasten the stock to her C86.
The moment the door closed, Tung said, “You did well against the bandits, Mr Lee.”
“Only because you had my back, Ms Tung.” He cocked his head. “You killed more of them than me, didn’t you?”
She smiled briefly. “We had each others’ backs, didn’t we?”
“Only way to get by these days.”
She nodded. “I get the feeling our client isn’t upfront with us.”
“Why? Because his contact was executed?”
Lee’s face darkened. “We don’t know the full situation. I’ve seen firsthand what the Imperial Guard can do, and will do.”
“What do you mean?”
Lee sighed. “I was… In the early days of the I Chuan Uprising, the I Chuan Tui besieged the International Quarter of Shen Kang. When the Westerners broke the siege, the Emperor declared war on the Eight Nation Alliance and sent in the newly-formed Imperial Guard.”
Lee’s voice faded to a whisper, his eyes glazing over. “The Imperial Guard burned down the International Quarter. Slaughtered every foreigner they found. They marched on the Treaty Ports, on the International Legation in Nanking, and did it all over again.
“When the Uprising was over, they embarked on a ‘pacification’ campaign. They executed everybody suspected of assisting the foreigners. All it took was an accusation from a pure-blooded Hsia. I saw it all first-hand.
“Was our client’s customer truly a criminal? Or had he simply run afoul of some official who turned the Imperial Guard against him? We don’t know that for sure.”
“That was war. Things are different now.”
“The Pacification of Linghsi wasn’t that long ago.”
Her face fell. Then she looked up. “We need to find the truth for ourselves.”
“How do we do that?”
She grinned. “I have a lockpick set.”
He nodded. “Get to it. I’ll keep a lookout.”
She hopped into the back of the wagon. He waited, standing his lonely vigil.
Minutes later, the door opened, revealing Ayan and Cheung.
“Where’s Ms Tung?” Cheung asked.
“Guarding the cargo.” He circled around the wagon, calling, “Ms Tung, we’re done here. Please hand me my rifle.”
“Here,” she said, holding out his Volition in one hand.
“Thanks,” he said, while raising his eyebrow and gesturing ever so slightly at the trunks in the rear.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, nodding almost imperceptibly.
They didn’t speak again until the evening, when they checked into the inn. Once upon a time it was a rich man’s mansion, surrounded by low walls. The current owners had maintained the facade, but kept up with the times. It had piped water, electricity, even a telephone on the front desk. After the men moved the goods into Cheung’s room, the quartet adjourned to the dining room. The waitresses greeted Ayan warmly and led them to their table.
“They seem to like you,” Lee said.
He smiled. “Yes. I taught their families a few years ago.”
“You were a teacher?”
“Was. Then the Imperial education reforms reached the Northeast. The Education Ministry sent a young man with a wagon full of ‘modern’ textbooks. He insisted that I teach the new curriculum.” A great invisible weight fell on Ayan’s shoulders. “I am an old man. In my youth I studied the classics. I couldn’t begin to understand the ‘mathematics’ and ‘sciences’ they wanted me to teach, and the new curriculum had no room for the Analects or the Great Records. I had to find a new job.”
“That must have been terrible,” Tung said.
Ayan shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. Who am I to say?”
“You seem very calm about it.”
Cheung laughed. “He’s a scholar of Laotzu. What did you expect?”
Ayan smiled benignly. “The times have changed. Now the wind blows from the West, and we must bend or we will break.”
A waitress arrived to take their order. They ordered noodles and pickled cabbage soup for everyone. And tea.
“What did you mean, the wind blows from the West?” Tung asked.
“We were a great empire once,” Ayan said. “We gave the world the Four Great Inventions: paper, gunpowder, printing and the compass. The Westerners took them from us, improved them, and used them against us. Now, if we are ever to end the Century of Humiliation, we must catch up with them.”
“Don’t forget Yematai,” Cheung said. “We gave them their written language, and in their eternal gratitude they stole Chüsenkuo and are now meddling in the Northeast.”
“Ah, yes. Yematai. I almost forgot.”
The tea arrived. It was much hotter and a little sweeter than Sum Kong teas. Lee sipped slowly at his.
“We stood up against the West,” Tung said. “We defeated the Eight Nation Alliance by ourselves. I’d say we’re doing well.”
“No,” Lee said.
“No? Why not?”
“We fought them to a stalemate. We couldn’t remove them from our lands. The best we could do was to renegotiate the Unequal Treaties, turning the Treaty Ports into International Cities. And that was after five years of total war.” He sipped quickly at his tea. The heat held back memories of burning skies and bloodsoaked earth at the door to his soul.
“You were there,” she said. “I heard you fought for us.”
He blinked away images of lightning-struck airships crashing to the ground and the buzzing of flies feasting on rotten corpses. “Yes.”
He raised an eyebrow. “The foreigners were invading our land and murdering our people. How could I not fight?”
“I mean, your father…”
Ethan Thomas Lee laughed and laughed and laughed. His companions just stared at him. He kept laughing, expelling bitterness before it formed. Finally, he said, “Why, am I supposed to feel guilty because my father is a bakgwai? My parents taught me that we are all human first, before race or nation. I tried to live up to that.”
“Er, well, okay,” she said. It was the first time he’d seen her flustered. “I just thought it would be…difficult for you to fight in the Army.”
“It was. Only pure-bloods were allowed to sign up. Mixed-bloods were outcasts at best, race traitors at worst.” Another sip of tea. “I fought as a franc-tireur. Later in the Auxiliary Corps, when the Emperor declared total war and relaxed the race policies.”
Ayan chuckled. “Sounds like us.”
“I was working as a travelling merchant in the Northeast during the Uprising,” Cheung said. “When Yematai landed their Marines, I was cut off, so I joined the local resistance. That was how I met Ayan.”
“What did you two do?” Tung asked.
“We ran supplies, smuggled people and delivered information.” Ayan smiled. “Interesting times. The Yemai sent the largest contingent amongst the Eight Nation Alliance, mainly to deal with the franc-tireurs.”
Cheung laughed. “Not us, mind you. We were just two old men doing a small part. The glory goes to the young ones who fought for us.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Lee said neutrally. “Without resupply I couldn’t have done much. Nobody could have.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Cheung said, and did.
Lee turned to Tung. “What about you? What did you do?”
She tapped her fingers against the table. “Hm. I joined the I Chuan Tui when they held recruitment rallies, and fought in some skirmishes near the coastal cities. After the Sack of Nanking, the Emperor fled to Linghsi and the foreigners followed. We were the rearguard. We fought them in the forests and the swamps, holding them off until the Kanchün Braves and the Imperial Guard defeated them. After that, I followed the Braves and the Guard all the way to the final victory at Nanking.”
Cheung raised his cup. “To victory!”
“To victory,” Lee replied, and the others took up the toast. Cheung refilled their cups.
“The Emperor’s betrayal must have hit you hard,” Cheung said.
“Betrayal? No, no.” She shook her head. “Uncle was too set in his ways. We defeated the imperialists only because we were united. We had to stay united. But Uncle stayed true to the Ch’in Dynasty.”
“Your uncle was the warlord of Linghsi,” Lee said.
“Yes,” she said tonelessly. “He was a governor until the Long Hair Rebellion.
“He taught you wuchishu?”
Tung giggled. “Well, his daughter needed a training partner. A woman who could fight like a man.”
“Hold on,” Ayan said. “If your uncle supported the Ch’in, why did he allow the Emperor into his lands?”
“Tijen te tijen shi wo te p’engyu,” she said. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. “He hated the foreigners more than the Hsia. He also thought he could win concessions from the Emperor that way. He was…mistaken.” She sighed. “We needed a unified country, and Uncle continued to be defiant. He brought his fate on himself.”
The food arrived. Lee, as he always did, took a minute to take a tiny taste of each dish, judging them not alien to his palate. As he scooped up a mouthful of springy wheat noodles, Cheung asked, “Have you two faced Western sorceries?”
“Yes,” Tung said.
Lee simply nodded, and chewed.
“What did you think of them?”
“Frightening,” Tung said. “It was nothing I’ve ever seen before. I saw them grow brick walls from the ground, turn themselves invisible, create thunderstorms in clear days…” She shook her head. “The first time I met them, I saw a fireman wave his hand and burn down a farm. Just the crops. They left the farmers to starve.”
Cheung glanced at Lee. “What do you think?”
Lee swallowed. “I think the Westerners’ magic was superior to ours.”
Tung blinked. “Really? We developed wuchishu and moshu while they were still burning witches at stakes. They still don’t accept the existence of chi.”
“Yes, and they caught up.” He set his utensils down and stroked his chin. “The old wuchi masters wanted to create a perfect warrior, someone who could use every weapon and defeat every defence. But there were no guns back then. Only shields and blades. Even after firearms became commonplace, the old teachings remained untouched.
“The Westerners developed a theory of magic in an age of gunpowder and steam engines. They integrated their magics into their militaries and studied how to use them properly in modern warfare. That’s one of the reasons why they rolled over the Ch’in military so quickly during the Colonisation Wars.”
“True, but the New Army reforms are changing the way we fight with wuchi. Besides, Western elementalists are sharply limited. They can only manipulate the element they specialise in. We understand universal principles. The world is ours to shape.”
“It’s more than that,” Lee said. “The Westerners turned magic into a science. They studied magic, isolated its elements, and made everything explicit. As for us, wuchishu is taught mainly as a set of interconnected ideas and principles. We were expected to learn them by going through the forms, thinking about how they worked for us and applying them in the real world. It takes years before a student can begin to use wuchi at a useful level. The Westerners could train military elementalists in months.”
“True, but our method is more effective. We are healers, fighters, sappers…anything the battlefield needed us to be. I fought entire battles without ever touching my gun.”
“That may be true for you,” he said, nodding. “I did most of my killing with guns and knives and bombs. I only used chi for mundane purposes. Healing, reducing obstacles, that kind of thing.”
“Really? I thought franc-tireurs who knew wuchi used it a lot.”
“Maybe they did. All I know is, for me, a bullet flies faster than a chi ball.”
“Where did you learn wuchishu from anyway?” Ayan asked. “I’ve never seen a mixed-blood using it before.”
“My father. He learned Taichi Chuan, among other things.” Lee paused. “Then again, he mixed and matched some styles, with an emphasis on what could be easily learned and applied. Maybe I just didn’t have the classical education Ms Tung had.”
She nodded, and turned to her food.
“Mr. Lee, have you faced Western sorcery up close?” Ayan asked.
“Yes,” Lee said. “I had a sorcerer in my unit. He told me interesting things.”
“Our moshu and theirs isn’t very different. Both methods involve summoning spirits and asking them for help. Our sorcerers call on lots and lots of spirits, make grand offerings and generally take a while to do things. The Western sorcerers, what they call ritualists, call on just one spirit at a time. No grand displays either. While they don’t have a lot of spirits they knew how to use them effectively. The Western rituals also took less time and resources than ours. Always a plus in war.”
“Could you give an example?” Tung asked.
“Take the Boxers.” Lee blinked. “I mean, the I Chuan Tui. Calling down a hundred thousand spirit soldiers was impressive, yes, and so was mass spirit possession. And, yes, they made some early gains using shock and surprise. But as individuals the spirits were weak, and their sorcerers couldn’t control them properly, much less coordinate with the rest of the I Chuan fighters. The Western ritualists summoned small groups of powerful daemons, and coordinated effectively with the rest of their forces. When the war came to a close, the Spirit Army practically ceased to exist.”
“Interesting,” she said. “The Westerners killed our sorcerers early on, and we never fought sorcerers on the road to Nanking.”
“Yes, they sent them against the Auxiliary Corps mostly. We shifted our sorcerers there to counter that.” He swallowed down some soup and with it a memory of a fire-breathing daemon that came too close to him.
“You okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Just…” he shrugged, looked away. “The war was long ago, and there’s a long road ahead of us still.”
“I agree,” Cheung said. “Come, no more talk of war tonight.”
Dinnertime conversation turned to less weighty matters.
After dinner, Cheung yawned, stretching. “I think I shall turn in soon,” he said. “See you in the morning.”
With that, they stood. As Lee prepared to go, Tung leaned close to his ear and whispered, “We need to talk. In private.”
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